by Tylor-Maria Johnson,
Princeton Undergraduate Student studying Public Policy
“God did not hire me to judge people, but called me to be a part of the human repair business,” Pastor Benny explained to Harlem Community Justice Center’s Youth Court members at an interfaith panel on restorative justice last Friday [June 22]. The panel, organized by the Harlem Youth Court and Interfaith Center of New York, explored the intersectionality between restorative justice, faith communities, and the larger criminal justice system. The Harlem Youth Court trains 14- to 18-year-olds to become jurors, advocates, and judges for cases involving their peers who are diverted from the family court and criminal court. The goal is to help youth respondents who have committed minor offenses to avoid further justice system involvement. The Youth Court achieve this by helping respondents to accept responsibility for their behaviors and understand how their decisions impact the community, their family and their future. Through a restorative sanction respondent like community service projects planned and delivered by the Youth Court, letters of apology or counseling sessions, youth work to repair the harm and in doing so repair their relationships with their family.
The panel was moderated by The Rev. Chloe Breyer, Executive Director of the Interfaith Center. Panelists included Pastor Hector Custodio (a.k.a. Pastor Benny), the Senior Pastor at Immanuel-First Spanish United Methodist Church in Brooklyn, NY, and director of Never Forsaken Re-entry Ministries, Inc; Imam Abdus-Salaam Musa, a Board Certified Chaplain for the College of Pastoral Supervision & Psychotherapy and President of the South East Queens Muslim Collective; and, Rabbi Andrew Scheer, a Jewish chaplain for the New York City Department of Correction. Rabbi Scheer also performs interfaith chaplaincy functions for the New York Veterans Affairs Hospital.
Despite coming from different religious backgrounds, and walks of life, all agreed that people have a responsibility to help those who are suffering, especially men of color. The data on the problem is clear: “one-third of the adult working age population has a criminal record” according to NYU Brennan Center for Justice. The Osborn Association reports that in NY state alone, “105,000 children have a parent serving time in prison or jail”. Nationally 1.7 million children have a parent in prison according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Kicking off the panel, Rabbi Scheer, explained that in Judaism, all humans are created in the image of God. He likens each person to a “diamond that gets covered in mud after year of hardship and trials”. But regardless of the layers of dirt, at its heart lays a precious stone. Essentially, in his belief, though times of hardship may drive a person to do bad, at our core we are good people.
Imam Musa built on this, explaining how “society [can] create circumstances that cause people to commit crimes” and because of this “society is just as culpable as the person”. More broadly, he explained how crucial it is to talk about the injustices committed in society. We must listen, forgive, and love each other and “Bring back the humanity” to victims of the criminal justice system and treat the formerly incarcerated as “an asset not a liability,” Pastor Benny and Rabbi Scheer commented. Claiming that “America was founded on second chances,” Pastor Benny noted the humanity and value of those incarcerated or on parole. He emphasized the importance of restorative justice and its practice of forgiveness because within each apology is the power to not only liberate but to set the ground work for the progression of society.
Overall, restorative justice is the process of “chipping away the dirt that encapsulates our diamond” and restoring “the dignity of those who have to resort to things that are not good,” according to Rabbi Scheer. In essence, encouraging conversations between hurt communities and families, faith communities, police officers, and neighborhood and community leaders is a way people can chip away at the distrust, fears, and anxieties. There is “power of life and death in the tongue,” said Pastor Benny quoting the Bible. Dialogue is essential to the restoration process since words have the power to either change or destroy. It is up to us if we employ them to heal or hurt.
All panelists agree that what we say, and what we do has an impact. Thus if we hope to begin change, we must participate in a discussion of love, truth, and faith. We must commit to repairing the broken trust, and wounded souls with our words and our deeds.